How do children view social groups? Does the way in which we teach about social disparities affect the development of prejudice? How long-lasting are the effects of formal education? These questions, and many more, are the focus of CORE lab doctoral student Emma Pitt with her Social Disparities Project.
Emma, along with Rebecca Peretz-Lange at Purchase College and collaborators, is currently working on investigating how educational background can affect the essentialism of social groups. Essentialism is a cognitive default that causes us to assume that members of a certain category all have an underlying, inherent “essence” that leads to shared characteristics. Essentialist thinking may lead to more prejudice, as people may jump to the conclusion that a certain social disparity exists because all members of that social group share certain characteristics that caused the inequality. This way of thinking can be extremely detrimental, as it ignores the historical events and circumstances that have greatly contributed to social disparities. Because of the great importance of this topic and the implications it may have on people’s attitudes towards social disparities, Emma is looking at the factors that may affect essentialist thinking from childhood to adulthood.
Essentialist thinking may lead to more prejudice, as people may jump to the conclusion that a certain social disparity exists because all members of that social group share certain characteristics that caused the inequality.
In past research, essentialist thinking appears to emerge at a very early age. Essentialist thinking can be beneficial in many circumstances, as it allows us to make quick assumptions about certain categories. However, when applied to social groups, these assumptions can lead to prejudices. Therefore, it may be important to begin correcting this automatic assumption from an early age. The research team plans to investigate how children are being taught about social groups and the disparities between them; for example, unequal access to healthcare and disparities in the job market for certain racial groups. Essentialist language used by teachers and textbooks during class may reinforce prejudices, while more nuanced language that incorporates the role of external factors on disparities may correct essentialist assumptions.
Currently, Emma and the team have preliminary results investigating the prevalence of essentialism towards social disparities in adults. Participants filled out an online survey where they were given examples of certain social disparities and asked why these disparities occur. This pilot study aimed to compare different educational backgrounds in adults and how different types of formal education may increase or decrease the prevalence of essentialism. Preliminary results show that there were significant group differences between types of educational background, despite being many years since graduation for many of the participants. This implies that education may be an important and long-lasting tool in addressing social essentialism.
The study also found that those who endorse external language are less likely to endorse internal language. While this may seem intuitive, it provides the team hope that using external language, which emphasizes the role of structural and circumstantial factors, is an effective strategy to reduce essentialist, or internal reasoning.
Preliminary results show that there were significant group differences between types of educational background, implying that education may be an important and long-lasting tool in addressing social essentialism.
As Emma and the team dive deeper into this topic, they hope to discover what strategies are most effective as anti-prejudice interventions. This has important implications for education, as the ways children are taught will affect how they perceive the world around them throughout their lives. It is important that we give people the tools to understand social disparities and the differences between social groups so people don’t fill in the blanks with detrimental assumptions.